Great Barrington – “I’m doing a very eclectic class today,” announces Ellen Gorman to the group of five teens assembled in front of her last Wednesday evening at the LifeWorks Studio on Castle Street. “That means you get everything!” Then, as if on cue, six pairs of bare feet begin to progress through a series of movements from full plank, to side plank, to downward facing dog as a warm-up for the Contemporary/Modern class being offered at Moving Arts Exchange (MAX). September marks the start of year two for MAX, a nonprofit arts organization founded by Ellen Gorman and Andrea Blacklow who — drawing on their extensive experience in performance, choreography and dance education — are poised to offer an inclusive approach to dance education by doubling their class offerings for children, teens and adults to include ballet, jazz and hip-hop.
Watching Gorman at the helm is captivating; she is petite, brunette and strong — blending seamlessly with the five young women, clad in black stretch pants, tank tops, and t-shirts, who follow Gorman’s lead to find balance, alignment and poise. Watching the group move is intriguing — they are fueled by marked determination and collaboration, moving in sync, as the blonde wood floors creak audibly. “Find some wacky, wonderful, twisty way to get up,” Gorman encourages at a moment of transition, and even in this moment there is palpable joy among the participants.
Blacklow sums up their success: “In just one year, MAX is home to two dance companies — one for teens (T-MAX), and another for adults. [While] this is creating more opportunities for dancers to perform and train…we also invite the community to dance and perform with us. We really want to inspire both trained and untrained dancers to move with us.” In short, “we are expanding on what worked [last year],” Gorman says of the second season ahead for MAX. She and Blacklow are aiming for an atmosphere of inclusion, connection and ownership — and their flexible approach, pardon the pun, is proving quite alluring. The founders of MAX are finding that in today’s fast-paced world, kids often shy away from joining certain activities due to the level of commitment required; at MAX, quite inversely, kids are having fun in a low stress environment, and this fuels their desire to commit. This connection with students — much of what Gorman loves about her job — results in her being sought after to create a “Dance Recipe” for participants — or, in layman’s terms, a suggestion for what classes would be best considering an individual’s ability and what Gorman knows about his/her family life, interests, and availability.
“It’s really great, after a day of sitting down [at school] and thinking ‘in the book,’ [MAX classes] open my mind and body to create — [it’s like I] kind of get to take all I’m learning in class and digest it in a creative way,” says Antonia, age 14, of her experience at MAX. Another student remarks on what she loves about MAX: “The people, the dance, [it’s a space where I’m] not afraid to make mistakes, where I can just be me, and dance,” says Lili, age 12, who joined MAX last winter and has made attending weekly classes a priority.
MAX creates opportunities for trained and untrained dancers on the stage, at local community events, and out in the streets. Blacklow elaborates on what fuels the pair in their work: “Ellen and I have a passion for collaboration and we take an inclusive approach to dance for our students and our audience, which is why we enjoy using the landscape and streetscape as our stage and set. We want to perform for people who are not necessarily expecting a dance performance.” Unlike dance training schools, often geared toward large-scale productions, the allure here is ample opportunity for performance — and, in many cases, MAX participants are doing what Gorman calls, “site specific work — where [MAX] is called upon by other organizations to support their work,” which, in turn, leads to collaboration within the community. MAX participants can be found at the Relay for Life, the Holiday Stroll and Jacob’s Pillow Community Day. Just to name a few. And it is not only the students who are reaping the many benefits. “MAX truly feels like a place that is inclusive of all — there are both experienced and inexperienced dancers and acrobats, singers and photographers. It is a group effort being guided by two wonderful and passionate women. MAX is bringing the arts that are truly relevant to the community,” says Deb Gerard, MAX Advisory Board member and mother to program participants.
Opportunities include working with the MAX resident and teen companies, ongoing classes for children, teens and adults, MAXFlash events, site-specific dance and video Projects, and collaboration with the MAX Choir and other local artists and arts organizations. “MAX truly feels like a place that is inclusive of all — there are both experienced and inexperienced dancers and acrobats, singers and photographers. It is a group effort being guided by two wonderful and passionate women. MAX is bringing the arts that are truly relevant to the community,” explains Deb Gerard, advisory board member and mom.
This fall, MAX will be offering movement classes for 2nd and 3rd graders in the Berkshire Hills Regional School District through Project Connection. In September, look for them at the Great Barrington Farmers Market on Saturday mornings. They are also are in discussion with local arts organizations, Crescendo and MultiCultural BRIDGE, to collaborate on community performances in February and March. MAX creates work relevant to our collective experiences, having a profound and positive effect on practitioners, young emerging teen artists, and the surrounding community. From the founders: “We are especially excited to expand our teen program and T-MAX projects. It is very important to us to support our teen artists while they develop their bodies and voices to help them navigate the challenges of their generation. We accept sponsorship for MAXFlash Events with community organizations and businesses, and these opportunities will arise as the year progresses. Together we anticipate another great year of MAX dancing everywhere!”
Back in the studio — where dappled sunlight dances on verdant trees visible through the high, northwestern facing windows — the final piece of the class is a “circle dance” where participants pass turns to one another in a physical pantomime of sorts. They dance in unison — with each participant earning her moment in the center — until what would appear to be a carefully choreographed dance erupts organically. The finale is a communal “namaste,” the ancient Sanskirt greeting that, translated roughly, means, “The Spirit within me salutes the Spirit in you,” in recognition of the connectivity among us all. “Come as you are — come when you can — and we will dance together in whatever way you can move,” are Ellen Gorman’s parting words.
MAX is holding free observation classes on Aug 30th, and September 6th from 4-7 p.m. at LifeWorks Studio on Castle Street. From 4 to 5 p.m. they offer creative movement play for ages toddler to 7 years old. From 5-5:30 there is a Hip Hop Capokour class for teens and pre-teens and the adults can come try out Body and Soul, a dance workout that is sure to make you sweat but requires no dance experience. For more information, visit MovingArtsX.org or call 413-854-7674.